Narendra Modi tells India that “a new era has begun” after Kashmir power grab

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made his first public comments since his government’s risky power grab in Kashmir this week, and it’s clear he regrets nothing — even though the move could potentially spark a war with Pakistan.

Kashmir, a majority-Muslim region in both India and Pakistan’s north, has been partitioned between the two countries since 1947. It’s been a major source of tension ever since, with both sides disputing one another’s control over the region; the two countries have already gone to war over it twice.

This week, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government exacerbated the situation by revoking Article 370 of India’s Constitution, which had for decades afforded the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) — India’s side of Kashmir — substantial autonomy over its affairs.

Importantly, another article — 35a — also barred people outside the state from buying property there to prevent India’s majority-Hindu population from moving into Jammu and Kashmir and displacing the Muslims who live there. That, too, was revoked.

By revoking the articles, the Indian government in New Delhi will now have far more control over Jammu and Kashmir, and outsiders will be allowed to buy property there. That has sparked fears of “ethnic cleansing”: that Hindus will flock to the region to push out the Muslims once and for all.

Despite criticism from many around the world, most notably from Pakistani leaders who consider themselves protectors of Kashmir’s Muslim population and the true governors of India-administered Kashmir, Modi’s roughly 40-minute speech left no doubt he believes the article abrogations were a good move.

In a rare address to the nation on Thursday, Modi defended the decision. “We have taken this decision as a family. A new era has begun,” he said. “Article 370 was a hurdle for development of Kashmir,” adding that it only “gave only separatism, nepotism, and corruption to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

That last line is particularly important, as it underscores the main argument Modi and his supporters make for why revoking the articles were necessary: that an autonomous Jammu and Kashmir has caused too much separation between its Muslim population and India’s Hindu-majority populations, left the area less economically developed, and led to violence. Indeed, an insurgency on India’s side of Kashmir has killed thousands of people over three decades, bloodshed that New Delhi claims Islamabad helps fuel.

Still, Modi tried to quell concerns that the central government will perpetually rule Jammu and Kashmir. “You will get the opportunity to elect your representatives soon,” he said to the area’s residents. “I want to tell the people of Jammu and Kashmir that your representatives will come from among you.”

It’s unlikely that Modi’s words will do much to calm the current tensions. Indian forces in Kashmir — sent there to curb any unrest — reportedly detained 500 people on Thursday in nighttime raids.

There are also some rumblings that protestors in Jammu and Kashmir have thrown rocks at Indian security forces, prompting them to fire back. It’s believed some demonstrators have been killed, although there’s no direct confirmation of that.

New Delhi had already closed schools, evacuated tourists, cut off internet and phone service, and put some of the area’s political leaders under house arrest. In effect, the area is on lockdown.

“We’ve been pushed back into medieval times,” Ali Saifhuddin, a resident of the Jammu and Kashmir region, told BBC News on Thursday. “It’s a barbaric act, an act of extreme control by a state over its subjects.”

And Pakistan has warned of the possibility of war. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday noted that India and Pakistan have fought wars over Kashmir before and could do so again: “Such incidents are bound to happen again. I can already predict this will happen.” If a fight broke out, it could potentially spiral into a full-blown nuclear war since both nations have the bomb, though that outcome is extremely unlikely.

Modi, though, is unlikely to back down in the face of danger. If anything, he has an incentive to lean in to the decision.

Modi is a Hindu nationalist. The Kashmir power grab is part of his nationalist project.

India’s government is controlled by the Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which aims to reshape the country’s identity from a pluralistic democracy, where people of all religious faiths enjoy equal rights and status, to a country where the Hindu religion is given supremacy and infuses every aspect of politics and society.

About 80 percent of Indians follow the religion, though of course not all have joined the political movement. The remaining 20 percent are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others.

Modi, as the head of the party, is India’s prime minister. He has long been a Hindu nationalist and spent much of his first five-year term in power pushing policies favorable to that cause. Many have also faulted him for doing little to stop increasing violence against non-Hindus, especially Muslims, in India since he took control of the government.

Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people — 36 of them Muslims — were killed in 12 Indian states by vigilante groups, according to Human Rights Watch. In the same period, about 280 people sustained injuries in more than 100 such incidents in 20 states.

One Muslim man, Shaukat Ali, described to the BBC this May that an attack on him by a Hindu mob felt like “an attack on my entire faith,” adding, “I have no reason to live now.”

Despite — or perhaps in part because of — Modi’s unwillingness to address the uptick in violence, his party won India’s national election this May in a landslide, giving him a greater mandate to pursue his agenda over a second five-year term.

This latest decision in Kashmir is part of that agenda. One of the party’s longstanding goals was to change Jammu and Kashmir’s status, but it was always a move that would lead to immense blowback. But now that Modi has firm support, he finally decided to go ahead and bring the Muslim-majority region under New Delhi’s control.

“Non-Hindus, and in particular the Muslim minority, stand to lose out from this,” Michael Kugelman, an India expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, told me this week. “The repeal of Article 370 is a big manifestation of Hindu nationalism, as it represents an effort to bring India’s only Muslim-majority region into the union of India so that the nation’s Hindu majority can invest, acquire land there, and so on.”

It’s no wonder, then, that former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti — who was placed under house arrest this week — tweeted that the BJP’s action “marks the darkest day in Indian democracy.”

Today marks the darkest day in Indian democracy. Decision of J&K leadership to reject 2 nation theory in 1947 & align with India has backfired. Unilateral decision of GOI to scrap Article 370 is illegal & unconstitutional which will make India an occupational force in J&K.

— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) August 5, 2019

Experts say Modi’s government is likely to keep making risky moves because of the prime minister’s newfound strong support. “It gives little reason to hold back on carrying out the policies — including those rife with risk — that it had previously not carried out,” Kugelman says.

Which means you can expect Modi not only to defend his Kashmir play in the weeks to come, but also to make other controversial moves that could exacerbate tensions with India’s Muslims and Pakistan. In other words, Modi may only be getting started.

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